With each passing year, it seems clear the Millennials will be the first generation to experience widespread legalization of marijuana—even if the United States draws the legal line at the medical application of the plant. The issues of utmost importance for the next era of marijuana legislation are individual rights and the issue of mass incarceration through the war on drugs. Barack Obama is the first contemporary president to press these progressive concerns onto the nation about America’s war on marijuana.
Recent statistical polls of the United States’ prison system show that the war on drugs is costly to both the taxpayer and to American individual rights. As of 2014 around 50 percent of U.S. prisoners were incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Drug abuse should be met with an extended hand of help and rehabilitation, not with a pair of handcuffs. A little over half of incarcerated drug offenders were behind bars for marijuana-related charges last year. For context, the United States is the number one incarcerator in the world—as if it were a competition. The United States incarcerates more people than anywhere in the world by a margin of 717 per capita when compared to the other top incarcerators of the world like Russia, which manages to stay around 500 per capita. A New York Times article stated that corrections, police, and judicial expenses are more than a quarter of a trillion dollars each year in the United States.
Perhaps more troubling than the sheer amount of prisoners the United States had under correctional control in 2014 (1,571,013 prisoners) is the composition of U.S. prisoners. The criminal justice system, with great bias, selected two lucky groups to inhabit the majority of America’s prisons—blacks and latinos. These two groups are equally responsible for drug use when compared with the other major racial category: caucasians. Black Americans comprise only 13 percent of the total national population, but make up 40 percent of all those incarcerated for drug offenses.
At first glance, it is hard to imagine why Americans would support a justice system which works so hard to take punitive measures against those simply intoxicating themselves. Policies that maintain a prohibition of drugs may have good intentions, but they also have archaic roots in theocracy. The United States should have learned this lesson through America’s experiment with the prohibition of alcohol. It is easier to understand why the war on drugs is waged year after year when its racial outcomes are brought to light.
The war on drugs certainly serves an ideological purpose, which values the sanctity of the human body and society in a quasi-religious way. The progressive attitude of the millennials is mutually exclusive with the ideology that maintains the war on drugs and will hopefully end the war soon. The reason it has not ended sooner is because the war on drugs serves to support an oppressive racial regime that almost collapsed when Jim Crow laws were eliminated on a national level. Politicians remain in office when they are “tough on crime” and support this regime.
Throughout Obama’s political career, he has voiced a concern for the questionable inclusion of medical marijuana in the war on drugs. In his presidency, Obama has encouraged the reliance on science, not ideology (even if the two aren’t perfectly separable), in the settling of the American question on pot. He has taken measures to reduce funding to the Department of Justice for federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. In the meantime, 23 states have legalized marijuana (plus Washington, D.C.) use on some level (only four are fully recreational). California took the first initiative in 1995 to allow its citizens access to medical use of the plant.
Obama has shared a somewhat progressive sentiment on this issue which calls for a rehabilitative approach—as opposed to an institutionally punitive one—to marijuana abuse. However, this does not reflect the most scientific and progressive view. These views will reveal that marijuana has widespread medical use as a drug, and low-harm side-effects for users in general that fall well below the line of other drugs like alcohol.
America is finally now considering rolling back the war on drugs since Nixon first made mention of it, and Reagan brought it to fruition. For this reason it is hard to blame a lack of true progressive rhetoric on Obama’s part, helping America take its first baby steps away from the war on drugs. Yet Americans should press harder on this issue. Some urge Obama to use executive powers under the Controlled Substances Act to reschedule marijuana as a less serious drug as a schedule II drug.
A progressive view on marijuana is anti-prohibitive, and leaving any policies in place that create a prohibition of marijuana will be a problem. By not taking measures to ensure the elimination of the war on drugs, he tacitly supports a moderate prohibition state. The prohibition of goods over some vision of a healthy America will quickly create social-legal contradictions. For instance, if laws prohibit marijuana use for the health of society and the individuals in it, then why not prohibit coca-cola and pop tarts too?
Much worse than the legal contradictions, however, are the many thousands of lives that will be wasted behind a prison cell, for almost no apparent rational reason. The puritanical vision of a ‘clean America’ helps give rise to the prohibition of intoxicating substances, but America should move on from this outdated ideological stance. This vision has allowed for America to enter an era of ‘mass incarceration’ (a term deployed by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow).
Obama’s role in the American marijuana debate shows how he is attempting to embrace the Millennials’ more open-minded approach to the normative question of what to do about pot. Of course, Obama has been criticized and praised for being such a young president. Marijuana shows how he is really neither young nor old, at least his presidential self and not his personal character. He voices support for following the science on marijuana, but has yet to take much further initiative in actual policy.
Perhaps it is too soon still for America to embrace the scientific rehabilitative model Obama proposes, and he senses this. His reluctance, however, to bring about long-awaited change on this issue leaves many minorities placed unfairly behind bars with no political power to secure their own safety and happiness.